Sunday, 27 December 2009


I'm in the mood to make a New Years resolution, and seeing as how I'm talking about it here, I suppose it'd better be book related.

I've just been updating my book spreadsheet. I've bought an awful lot of books in the past few weeks. I started out resolutely refusing to step into Borders as the closing down signs went up, but eventually the brightly coloured signs lured me in. Even if the staff seemed intent on playing depressing Christmas music to make themselves feel better.

I found a lot of Jean Plaidy and a few other things I'm sure I would have never picked up, had it not been for the empty shelves.

With all these purchases, I found it necessary to rid myself of a fair few books, and I was ruthless - stripping my shelves of things long since bought but never touched. Three gigantic bags went off to Oxfam, although I wasn't quite as ruthless as my father who got rid of 300+ books in one fell swoop.

Now - on to this resolution. I don't think I can stop myself from buying books. After all, there are bargains and true finds waiting for me out there, and if they present themselves, they'll have to be bought.

No - my resolution is to read nothing that I don't already own at this precise moment in time (that would be Sunday 27th December, 8.22pm). That gives me 430 books to choose from, so the phrase 'I've got nothing to read' should never pass my lips. Wish me luck, and strength, dear comrades in books - I think I'm gonna need it!

Friday, 25 December 2009

Christmas Eve

Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring - except for the blogger rearranging her books.

So, it's Christmas time again, and I'm sure many of you will have a stack of books on your wish list. What have you stopped yourself from buying in recent weeks in the vague hope that someone else will have bought it for you?

In our family, we have a number of traditions. The party for my sister's birthday has in recent years made way for a trip to the pantomime for her children, so she can have a meal with her husband (and my other sister can finish off the last bits and bobs without fear of interruption). Christingle service is also a big part of the day, as well as forcing seven children between the ages of fourteen and three to sing carols around the tree. Actually - this year, they sang Jingle Bells instead of the usual Away in a Manger, which was different!

But the biggest tradition is the tree book. When my father was a lad, this consisted of the latest annual, and was a means of shutting the children up for five minutes. Nowadays, the whole family get a book (so that's about 15 books that need to be bought ... err, can I say that for once I was glad Borders had a huge closing down sale, or is that just mean?), and we all sit around as they are dished out. I was HUGELY pleased with mine, and I'd been dropping hints to dad for quite a while - and for that read, I sent him the Amazon link, so he'd get it exactly right. I am now the proud owner of 'Mary Poppins', which I've never read, and am quite excited about.

The clock has just turned over and it is officially now one minute past midnight, so I can now officially wish you all a very Merry Christmas and hope you all have a wonderful time and find yourself in possession of those books that you've been longing for!

Happy Christmas!

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Poem of the week

I had this sent to me and I love it!


This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.

This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.

This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.

And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect

Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.

by U.A. Fanthorpe

Is it snowing where you are? Oxford looks like it's been dusted with icing sugar, but there's not enough for snowmen or the like. Truly weather for sitting indoors curled up with a good book. I've got A.S.Byatt on the go, but I think a bit of Dickens is called for - Pickwick Papers perhaps?

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Christmas Quiz

Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a little something to test those brain cells, and so here is my round from my book club quiz, from whence I have just returned.

These are first lines from novels. All you have to do is tell me which novel, and who wrote it .... I know there will be great temptation to google, but as an incentive, I can promise a prize to the person with the highest number of right answers. And if you do feel the need to cheat, would you mind saying so - in the spirit of Christmas!

Also, apologies for the total silence - it's been mega busy at work. If anyone wants to know the complete ins and outs of the Oxford interview process, let me know, but I won't go in to details now!

Quiz time!!!!

1). The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

2). All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.

3). It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.

4). The Primroses were over.

5). Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

6). Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours that they meant to murder him.

7). A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness.

8). No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own.

9). He – for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it – was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.

10). I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

11). It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

12). Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

13). It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

14). The boys, as they talked to the girls from Marica Blaine School, stood on the far side of their bicycles holding the handlebars, which established a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, and the impression that at any moment the boys were likely to be away.

15). Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The Bright Star of Keats

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night,
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient sleepless eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors;
No yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever or else swoon to death.

I am just returned from watching a film about John Keats and his love affair with Fanny Brawne, named 'Bright Star'. I highly recommend you all to see it, for it is a beautiful testament to their short romance. I also highly recommend that you take a large box of tissues - you will use them all. I think it a testament to the film that as the credits rolled no one moved, until Ben Whishaw had spoken the final lines of 'Ode to a Nightingale'.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Historical fiction

There are certain authors who remain close to your heart long after others have arrived and stolen the genre for their own benefit.

For me, Jean Plaidy is one such writer. I discovered her at school and the library there will bear witness to my love, as each sign out card probably has my name on it at least five times.

Born Eleanor Hibbert in 1906, she started writing in the 30s, but wasn't published (under her maiden name of Burford) until 1941. Her pseudonym of Jean Plaidy was first used in 1945 until her final novel in 1993 - the year of her death. She had six other pseudonyms (including Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr) and over the span of sixty years, she wrote almost 200 books. She died at sea, somewhere between Greece and Port Said, Egypt - which seems almost fitting for someone who spent much of her writing life moving about various historical periods.

The reason I love Jean Plaidy, is because she creates the world of the time she is writing about so fully that you can't help be entranced. You feel the danger Henry VIII's wives are in; you understand the boredom Victoria feels as she is kept sequestered by her mother; the idea that Catherine de Medici could poison those closest to her is very real.

Before I realised that some of my favourite Plaidy's were written in the 80s and early 90s, I was going to say she was dated. That more modern historical authors like Philippa Gregory managed to get deeper beneath the skin of those times. But it's not actually true. Something continues to sparkle about Plaidy's writing and she will forever remain a favourite.

So - I have thirty of her books on my shelves, and I think I'm going to dive back into the worlds she writes about. Now to decide - Tudor, Georgian or Victorian era first?

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

In Memoriam

Aftermath - Siegfried Sassoon

Have you forgotten yet? ...
For the world's events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you're a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same - and War's a bloody game ...
Have you forgotten yet? ...
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz -
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench -
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, "Is it all going to happen again?"

Do you remember the hour of din before the attack -
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads - those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet? ...
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you'll never forget.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

The comfort of reading

It's been an emotional week. I've decided it's time to move out of the parental home - I moved back in when finishing my MA back in 2007, and I suddenly feel like it's the right time. I've been to look at quite a few places, and found a couple I liked. One in particular was great, apart from the fact I would be sharing with three guys. Now; don't get me wrong - there's nothing wrong with guys per se (and these were all lovely, tidy and old enough not to behave like idiots all the time) but it's not something I've ever done. Lots of soul searching was required.

Today, I finally made up my mind that this was the right move, and emailed them to say so. A couple of hours ago I had an email back saying that the girl that was moving out had changed her mind for the time being. So it's back to the drawing board. Heigh ho, these things happen, and at least I've not signed the contract or am all packed up and ready to go!

Throughout this week, I have been reading a lot to take my mind off things, and have been luxuriating in the wonder that is Susan Hill. 'Howards End is on the Landing' has made it to my house and has been making its presence felt.

The cover is enough to comfort, let alone what can be found inside.

So - what does this book have to tell you? Firstly, it's a tremendous explanation as to why Susan Hill disappeared from the web over a year ago. I noticed around June last year that the link to the left of this post that had led to Susan's blog, now led to nothing. I hoped it was a glitch but nothing ever surfaced.
Susan had, apparently, gone on a search for a book, and although she'd not found it, she did discover an awful lot of books she had either not read at all, or not read in a very long time. If there's one thing I can relate to, it's that! My shelves are crammed with books I've bought, but not read.

We are taken on a tour, not only of Susans' house, but also her life, peppered as it is with encounters with some of the best known names of the twentieth century. It's a charming book, full of recommendations that are made with fervour and a keen insight. I found myself almost able to understand her dislike of Austen (Susan, I'm a Janeite and I hate 'Mansfield Park' and 'Northanger Abbey'!!), and discovered a hunger to get back into Grahame Green, Thomas Hardy, Dickens, and all those other classics that are languishing on my shelves. I've been introduced to a lot of authors I've never heard of (and even found myself whilst up in London last weekend pondering whether I should buy a book she had passionately talked about ... I put it back. If Susan has taught me anything, it is that one should read the books one has!)

Simon and I are going to hear her talk later in November, so I'm sure this book will pop up another time. I could relate to the subject matter, and Susan, so much, that it almost makes me want to rush up to her at the event and proclaim affinity (as well as a passion for 'The Lady of Shallot'). This would probably end up being my equivalent of her experience with Edith Sitwell. Not a good plan!

Anyway, it's a lovely little book, with plenty to make one think. At the end, she lists the 40 books that she would choose if she could only have have 40 to last her the rest of her life. The fact that 'Learning to Dance' by Michael Mayne is listed twice is perhaps testament to the fact that she really cannot live without that book. (Only it's actually a misprint ... but like she says, it gives her room to tinker with the list!).

Susan Hill's copy of 'Howards End' is on the landing .... where is yours? (Mine is in the spare bedroom!

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Turned on to Brecht


So sorry - that was the sound my mind made last night as Fiona Shaw blew it away with the sheer force of her performance.

So Bertolt Brecht - what do people think of him? I know what I thought before last night - heavy going, hard to get to grips with in a modern era. Boring. Why then, you would be entitled to ask, did I want to go and see 'Mother Courage and her Children'? Quite simply because it was Fiona Shaw in the title role, and Deborah Warner directing her (who has also directed her in 'Medea' (which I tragically missed) and the film of 'The Last September', which I adore.). I could put up with anything with that combination.

From the moment I sat down in my seat, however - which had members of the cast roaming around, and stage hands doing various things with ropes and other stuff - I knew I was in for a treat. Then it started. A few minutes into the first scene and Fiona Shaw rises from the depths of the stage, on top of her wagon, accompanied by a band. Duke Special to be precise. Actually - type Fiona Shaw into Youtube right now, and the first five entries or so are videos of her jamming with said band after the show in the foyer of the National. The band are fantastic, and there is something weirdly right about wanting to get up and dance around as Fiona Shaw flings herself across the stage.

Anyway - back to Mother Courage. I never knew Brecht could be funny, but he is, and in an oddly resonant way for the world today. Yes, he's writing about a war in Germany in the mid 1600s, but he could just as easily be writing for the war that's going on now. This production hits you full in the face with the brutality of war, there are explosions, and bursts of fire, and Mother Courage's wagon grows and shrinks as her business succeeds and fails (at one point there is a satellite dish strapped to it).

Fiona Shaw is hardly ever off stage. Even if she's not speaking, she's always doing something - plucking a chicken and making a right mess, being one of the most memorable pieces of business. The supporting cast are fantastic - Harry Melling plays her youngest son Swiss Cheese, and if the name rings a bell, it will be because you have seen him play Dudley Dursley. Not an obvious choice, one might think, but somebody get him more parts fast, because the guy is astonishingly good. Forget the golden Potter trio, Harry Melling might be the one to watch!

The thing about the play is that it is so blatantly opportunistic. Mother Courage changes sides with alarming ease (and loses a child in the process) but I never blamed her for it. That is what war is like, and if you're trying to make a living from an army, you're always going to end up with the winning side. Does Mother Courage win? the play ends abruptly. With all her children gone, and left to trail after a battered company, with her wagon at it's most broken and only herself to pull it, you'd be inclined to think she doesn't.

The whole experience is amazing. You're thrown into this messy world and never allowed a respite. If Fiona Shaw doesn't (and she's only off stage for about fifteen minutes out of a three hour production) the audience doesn't either. But however gruelling the content is, this production makes it

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Very little to distress or vex

I wasn't going to post on the new BBC adaptation of Emma for another week or so, but Simon has done so, and I got rather animated in my response to it, and the other comments, so I feel I must air my views on this latest bonnet and bodice fest.

I like Emma, although it's not my favourite Austen, but I don't think I've ever seen a truly satisfactory production. The BBC's 1972 version is terribly stuffy - Emma looks to be in her 30s (even though Doran Godwin was only 22), Mr Knightley is hopelessly old, and not remotely handsome, and it has that odd lighting quality that seems to be a feature of 70s television. The filmed version with Gwyneth Paltrow has two redeeming features: Jeremy Northam (be still my beating heart) as Mr Knightley and Sophie Thompson as Miss Bates. Stellar casting, both of them.

The new version of Jane Austen's classic started this Sunday, and I sank quite comfortably into the familar story. Interestingly, a good fifteen minutes were spent depiciting Miss Taylor's wedding to Mr Weston, when in the book the event is covered in the first three pages, so the movement into the actual story is considered in the frame of Emma's loss. After that, we are very swiftly catapulted into Emma's ridiculous matchmaking, with the inevitable problems that causes.

Casting is always an issue, and I think Romola Garai is good in the title role. She's very good in period drama (I loved her in Daniel Deronda and Vanity Fair ), but there was something lacking in her performance. Perhaps it was the slight modernity of the script, or some of her movements, but I felt jarred slightly. I am very much on the fence over Michael Gambon's performance as Mr Woodhouse. In my opinion, Gambon is a very forceful actor; one is always aware of his presence. In contrast, my view of Mr Woodhouse is rather peripheral. Just a fussy nuisance. Having said that, Gambon does have flashes of whiny genius, so perhaps there is hope.

The biggest casting decision, that seems to be dividing people all over the place is Jonny Lee Miller as Mr Knightley. Is he too young? Is he too handsome? Is he too modern? The answer to all three of these is possibly 'yes', but in actual fact Knightley was only 38, and Jonny is 37, so it's probably his slightly pretty boy looks that have got people's backs up. I have to say that the rapport he has with Emma is fantastic, if a little less brotherly than we are led to expect. It's only the first episode and he's already tearing a hole in Emma's judgement. I can't wait until the picnic (and ooh - Mrs Elton is played by Christina Cole, who played Caroline Bingley in Lost in Austen ... that should be fantastic to watch!).

I am reserving my complete judgement for a while. I like it, and think the main aspects work, but there is something I can't put my finger on that makes me think it's lacking in some way. Is it just that everyone is just a touch too modern to be properly Austenesque? I shall have to watch the second episode ... watch this space!

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Recap on holiday reading

When the weather is like the picture above (that's a view of St Mark's square from the Grand Canal, Venice, in the biggest rain storm I've ever seen) what's the best thing to do? Yes - read.
I think October must be my favourite month to immerse myself in literature. It's so wet, and dull. No late Autumn frosts to encourage you out on a good long stomp, just the tempting sofa on which to curl up.

I've already finished four books in the last week, and my appetite is simply craving more. Here are my favourites from the past few weeks ....

The Glassblowers of Murano by Marina Fiorata
This was one of my holiday reads - indeed in painted a better picture of Venice than the one I was witness to. I honestly think I would've have been drier if I had chosen to swim up the grand canal! Anyway - the book follows the fortune of an immensely talented glass maker, and his descendant who comes to Venice to change her life, and finds more than she ever expected. It's a cleverly woven tale, and the process of glassmaking - so important to Venetian life - is wonderfully depicted.

The Information Officer by Mark Mills
I think Mark Mills' writing style is wonderful. Clear cut, but with just enough mystery around the edges to leave you wondering. I had read 'The Savage Garden' and loved it for it's Italian setting and the way it drew you in. This novel - set on the bomb ravaged island of Malta during WWII - draws you in too, but makes you feel the danger heightened by wartime activities. There were times I could almost
feel the vibrations of the bombs falling. Mills is an author I would recommend to anyone, he has the universal touch.

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton
I think I'm a bit late coming to this particular party (but that's fashionable, right?), but I absolutely adored this book. I'm always on the look out for what my Father calls 'a ripping yarn', and I struck gold with this one. Spanning three generations, two of which are hunting for the answer to a young woman's heritage. It rattles along at a great pace, and takes some surprising turns in its quest for the answer. I love the fact that it uses fairy tales to help the plot along, and that the different voices telling the story don't drown each other out. I couldn't put it down - in fact I spent an entire evening in a pub finishing it (300 pages in 3 hours, not too bad going), which goes to prove how captivated I was.

Which leads me onto my next subject .... but that deserves a post of its own. I shall leave you with a view of Lake Garda after the weather had cheered up considerably!

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Books for an Italian setting

I am just off for a week to Italy, and as usual I have had the heart wrending decision over what to take, book wise. However, seeing as I am leaving in a few minutes, I think I have the final list, and here is what I will be reading:

Sonnets from the Portugese - Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Footsteps - Kate McMahon
East of the Sun - Julia Gregson
The Food of Love - Anthony Cappella
Captivated - Piers Dudgeon
Roman Fever - Edith Wharton
Burning Bright - Tracy Chevallier

I think that's enough to keep me going, and at least I can't buy any books whilst on holiday - I can't read Italian.

Arrividerchi everyone!

I'm imagining a woman who travels with her own personal bath ...

I have heard Simon extol the virtues of 'Miss Hargreaves' so often that it often seemed to me that the book couldn't possibly hope to live up to the expectations. So when Simon offered me a copy of the newly published Bloomsbury edition, I thought I should snap it up and see what all the fuss was about.

Well, Simon has a new convert to the Hargreavean cause, because I love it. Even if it is totally insane - and maybe that's part of the charm!

The book revolves around Norman Huntley and his seeming overactive imagination. Creating a Miss Hargreaves, who travels with her Cockatoo, harp and bath, to get out of a slightly sticky social faux pas, Norman is - quite understandably - shocked to arrive home and find his creation waiting for him.

Now, I don't know about you, but my imagination is pretty fanciful at times, and I have been known to have conversations with invisible people (although they all are actual people, whether or not they are present at the time). Frank Baker's book has elements of 'The Bronte's went to Woolworths' (another Bloomsbury Group republication) although the drama is considerably heightened in Baker's novel.

Norman, you see, is not best pleased that his creation has come to life and is determined to claim friendship and thereby ruin his life, by alienating his employees and the girl he's going out with. It's not as if Norman leads a particularly sane life before Miss Hargreaves arrives - his father is quite clearly batty (although lovable for it), and the entire town seems to be a little off balance - but throw Miss H into the mix, and everything goes mad. Norman, no matter how hard he tries, can't seem to get rid of this woman, who wears outrageous hats and has a cockatoo that sings opera.

When he does manage to finally make her disappear, he regrets it at once - willing her to reappear, she does so, but so markedly different (she is now Lady Hargreaves) that Norman finds himself wishing for the chaos that went before.

Does Norman finally manage to dispel his creation, or does she stay forever to be a reminder not to take imagination too far .... I recommend reading it, but don't whisper the words 'Miss Hargreaves' to the wind too often - you might be surprised who turns up!

Sunday, 23 August 2009

The play's the thing!

Before I disappear into a heady euphoria at England winning the Ashes (and after seven hours in a pub watching today, I would've have been slightly displeased had they lost, or gone onto a fifth day) I had better tell you about my day in London yesterday, when I went to see Jude Law in 'Hamlet'.

I know it's not a natural thought process - "Jude Law in 'Hamlet'" doesn't trip off the tongue like "Rufus Sewell in 'Hamlet'" might (ooh, now there's a thought), but it intrigued me enough to force me to buy tickets. I've been to see the entire Donmar West End season, which started with Kenneth Branagh in 'Ivanov', followed with Derek Jacobi in 'Twelfth Night', continued with Judi Dench in 'Madame de Sade' and concluded with 'Hamlet'. At £10 for the cheapest seats, it was well worth it, and I've had some real treats. With 'Hamlet', the biggest draw for me was the fact that Kenneth Branagh was supposed to be directing it, although he eventually pulled out to star in (and direct) 'Thor' .... odd choice.

Anyway, I persuaded my sister, Simon and a friend of his (Andrea) to come with me, and we all made our various ways to the theatre for the matinee, meeting out front about 15 minutes before curtain up. At it was the penultimate performance, there were scores of people queueing for returns (or standing seats - and yes, there were quite a few people doing that!).

I have never seen 'Hamlet' live - although I've seen plenty of film versions. I am ashamed to say I hate Laurence Olivier's performance; Mel Gibson was an odd choice (although Glenn Close as Gertrude is inspired); but of course my favourite is Kenneth Branagh's - and if you can find the four hour uncut version, it is well worth sitting in front of - if merely for the pleasure of John Gielgud and Judi Dench acting out the tragedy of Priam and Hecuba, with voice over of Charlton Heston as the Player King.

I digress. I think I have established that I had doubts about the logic of Jude Law's casting, and I have to confess that these were not entirely dispelled with his entrance. Of course, Hamlet doesn't get many lines in the first scene, and whilst talking to Claudius and Gertrude, he is too petulant to allow most actors to shine; but with the first soliloquy, I felt that this might just end up being a stellar performance. This was proved to be true when Hamlet meets the ghost of his father - that scene sent shivers down my spine. After that, the play simply flew. Those key scenes that are so important, and so familiar, were all done with impeccable timing, and helped along by the sparsity of the set.

Most of the visible stage was covered with black flagstones; about two thirds back, a great gate (like a front gate to a castle) was positioned on rollers, to be moved back and forth, so it could reveal or hide parts of the action. One door in the middle of the gate, and one either side, served to allow people from the 'outside' to enter. There were very few seats used throughout (five, I think in all, and those only in three scenes), and practically no backdrops. The beginning of Gertrude's confrontation scene with Hamlet was cleverly done, because instead of Polonius being hidden at the back of the stage, the arras was brought down front stage, so that Hamlet and Gertrude were hidden from view, and the audience had a clear view of Polonius listening in. When Hamlet stabbed him, he brought down the curtain in his death throes, and revealed the scene to the audience.

Now. This scene of Gertrude's is my favourite, because I love how it becomes the turning point for her, and her view of the whole situation, and in my view it's done best with little weeping. This wasn't the case here, and unfortunately (forgive me Simon) Penelope Wilton almost ruined it with an overly hysterical performance. However, when she got to the line 'Oh Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain', her whole manner dropped like a stone, and never was there a quieter and beautiful performance. Except perhaps for this one.

And again, I digress - it's getting late, sorry readers. So, they all died. And died very well in their various poisoned states; Fortinbras came in, claimed the kingdom, the curtain went down (stayed down for a while longer than usual, to give everyone time to get off the floor) and then rose to rapturous applause. Which went on and on, and there were lots of bows, although only two curtain calls (why, nowadays, are there only two curtain calls? What happens if there was a play, the best ever seen, and people were bowled over so much they just went on clapping, even after the lights were put up? Would there be more curtain calls, or just lonely people clapping? It's something that puzzles me).

So it ended, and an obvious trip to the stage door was agreed upon. Having got there, we found a crowd, in a neat (but expanding) semi circle. 'Is there a barrier?' my sister wondered. No - just good old fashioned British respect .... even though half the waiting people weren't English at all. Kevin McNally came out, as did Penelope Wilton; we were reliably informed that Jude Law never came out between shows (although I bet he sneaks out of a different entrance occasionally), Peter Eyre came out and hung around a while, and Fenella Fielding plus suitcase waited at the stage door for someone (and the person next to me said she is married to one of the actors, although I can't work out who!!!), and Anita Dobson went past on her way into the Noel Coward theatre, which is showing Calendar Girls. Starry eyes indeed!

So there we are - Jude Law's 'Hamlet', a success, methinks, even with its errors, and one worthy of being entered into the halls of fame. I'm always jealous of my father when he says he's seen something that was put on before I was born (Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith's 'Othello' being one of them). Perhaps people in years to come will be jealous of this!!!


One more thing, which I am slightly apprehensive of putting here, lest it be lost in my enthusiastic write up of 'Hamlet', and that is a piece of news about a book I loved, and which has been talked about all over the blogosphere. 'The Spare Room' by Helen Garner is to be adapted for the London stage by Eileen Atkins and will star Eileen herself and Vanessa Redgrave. Look out for it in 2010 - I know I'll be getting tickets!!!

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Coco Avant Chanel

I've never been a 'dedicated follower of fashion'. I know what I like, and what looks good on me, but because I don't have the figure equivalent to a pencil, I've never been one to fawn over the fashion parade.

There's something different about Chanel though, and I think it's partly to do with the woman behind the creations. The mystery of her, and how she was so different from the other women of her time.
Tonight I went to see 'Coco Avant Chanel', which seems to be kicking of a great Coco fest - there are at least two more films, a biography, and another book from none other than Justine Picardie (she of my 'Daphne' inspired raves). Justine is keeping her cards very close to her chest, but if the passages in 'My Mother's Wedding Dress' are anything to go by, it should be fascinating to say the least.
Sorry - where was I?

I don't want to talk too much about the plot - as the title would suggest, the film focuses on the early period of Chanel's life, before she became a renowned designer. I think I'm developing a passion for French film - there is a simplicity to the dialogue and cinematography that seems to be lacking in most 'blockbusters' at the moment. Audrey Tautou captures the fragility of the young woman, yet also manages to portray the fire that drove her to reach for what she wanted, and not settle for what she was offered. The supporting cast are all well chosen too - I've not heard of any of them, but none of them detracts from what the story is trying to tell you. Costumes, are of course, key; and it's wonderful to contrast the plainly dressed Coco with the opulence that characterised the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras.

The final scene is almost a piece of iconic history. Coco Chanel was (I think) well known for watching her creations go out during shows from the curve in the staircase. When Katharine Hepburn starred in a musical about the woman, she recreated this pose, and now it has come full circle, with Audrey Tautou sitting, in the final shot, on a staircase, whilst her clothes waft past her. That's the way icons are remembered, and this film deserves all the audience it can get. It's like the person it portrays. Simple. And chic.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Pass me a paintbrush, I've come over desperately Romantic!

I think I'm turning in a squirrel - I've been hoarding posts like you wouldn't believe. I was going to post tonnes and tonnes tonight, but I got distracted.

However, there is one post that I cannot leave for another day, because if I do, the series will be over, and there'll be no point.

'Desperate Romantics' is made in the spirit of 'Lost in Austen' (and you'll remember how much I loved that!). Irreverent, modern and completely mad are all epithets that could be attached to this BBC 2 romp; but it is also a highly original and illuminating take on the lives of the Romantic Brotherhood. Men such as Millais and Holman Hunt, who are now revered and looked up to as men of the age, are here shown as the struggling artists they were to begin with. Add the exotic dash of Rosetti, and the prudence of Ruskin, with his ignored wife, and you have the makings of an excellent BBC drama.

True enough, even with period costumes, it's not entirely your usual Beeb drama ... the Guardian critic said a few weeks ago that when all three strut down the street (as they tended to do early on, in their search for the perfect model) the soundtrack to Reservoir Dogs could have been played. Well, it's not quite that bad, although I do feel like humming the Ride of the Valkyries at certain moments.

Anyway, you should definitely catch the last three parts if you can - if nothing else, you get to see quite a few paintings in various stages of completion. The background to Millias's Ophelia, without an Ophelia, is really rather intriguing!

Sunday, 26 July 2009

A family affair

As I'm sure you know, I quite like going to the theatre, and in this, the 70th year since the Oxford Playhouse was conceived, I've been attending rather more plays than usual in my home theatre.

Tonight, there was a benefit for the Playhouse campaign, in which Prunella Scales, Timothy West and Sam West, entertained a packed house, with a number of pieces, all under the theme of 'Family'.

Kicking off with the infamous 'Handbag' scene from 'The Importance of being Earnest' (in which Prunella gave a rather quiet and exhausted delivery of that line), the trio rattled their way through 'Brideshead Revisited', 'Hamlet', 'It's all right if I do it' (with a wonderfully giggly reading from Prunella, and a completely baffled reaction from Timothy) 'The Birthday Party', 'When We Were Married', 'A Number' (Here, Sam West struggled to come to terms with the fact that there are clones of him, and he isn't necessarily the original from whence they sprang), 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?', 'Family Voices' (This a Harold Pinter radio play of 25 minutes, which tells a tale through letters of a family keeping in touch, yet at the same so far apart as to have lost all contact. A wonderful piece), 'Father William' and finally 'Cocoa'.

I really do love ensemble pieces like this - especially when the actors in question know each other so well. Lovely to see Sam West laughing his head off at some of his parent's deliveries, as did Timothy at one point. In directing his mother to a chair for the 'Family Voices' piece, Prunella went one too far and was instantly recalled by Sam. 'I don't know why it matters', he mused, 'it's a radio play, there's not much action.'

*I've changed the picture - many thanks to Jellybean for providing me with the link!!!

Friday, 10 July 2009

Off to Cornwall

Bye bye everyone - for a week at least!

With no access to the Internet, I would like to direct your attention to my twitter account - This I can update from my mobile, and hopefully I can use it to tell my reading tales. Expect lots of references to D du M!

Still not decided on the final short(!) list of books, so twitter is the best place to find out what I've picked!

Have a good week all!

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

How to protect yourself from those pesky cold callers

In a week's time, if you notice that you've suddenly been inundated by people ringing you up to offer you double glazing, the following could be the reason why. My thanks to Dovegreyreader for posting this on her blog. If you live in the UK, I suggest you put it on yours too!

'You may or may not be aware but next week (13/07/2009), all UK mobiles will be listed on a directory which will mean that anyone will be able to access the numbers so you will be open for cold calling. It is easy to unsubscribe but it must be done before the beginning of next week to make sure that you are ex directory. You may want to unsubscribe any personal mobiles or advise friends and family accordingly.

Go to

then select Ex-Directory at the top right and follow the instructions which are quite simple.'

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Can any reader help me???

It's that time of year again - I'm going on holiday, and as usual I am presented with the problem of what on earth to read.

It's not as if I don't have a lack of choice. I have three bookcases full of tempting titles that I would love to read. However, I am only going for a week, and I can't cart 800 books to Cornwall. I've decided to take the train, and I don't think I'd be popular.

So, I've been pulling books from shelves, replacing them, grabbing more, and there are now quite a number on the spare bed. Look.

That's 21 books for a week. I don't think I'm being very sensible. And besides - I'm going to du Maurier country ... surely I ought to take more of her work? I'm not spoiled for choice there either - there's an entire shelf asking me to take my pick ....

Which one do I read?

I need help - I need directing. Someone come to my rescue!

P.S. I'm also planning on buying at least one of the new Bloomsbury reprints that Simon has ordered me to read .... that takes my pile up to 22 .....

Sunday, 5 July 2009

The wonder that is ....

.... yes, you guessed it. Wimbledon!

The weather, for once, has been outstanding. I'm sure it's been said often and by far more eminent people than me, but god bless the All English Tennis club for spending so much on that roof to ensure that the tournament was dry.

I indulged in making myself a little tennis dream team on tennisforfree (although the absence of a Wimbledoves meant I was going solo). I didn't make very good choices, possibly because I chose my team the day Wimbers started - but by a sheer stroke of genius, I managed to pick the Women's winner, and I have both final players for the men's .... I had Mr Murray too - but that dream is over for another year. I am currently ranked joint 401st in the women's league, and 873rd in the men's ....

So, I've been sweltering, and jumping around like a lunatic at every Murray serve, but the wonder comes to an end today. Will it be Federer or Roddick? I'm not entirely sure who I want to win, and I doubt I'll see it, as I'm off to my sister's BBQ - a housewarming BBQ she claims - she's only lived there 5860 days!

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Adopting the French attitude

Whilst in the middle of 'Passion', I suddenly felt that it was all getting a bit too much. Mary Shelley was spending far too much time worrying about the fidelity of her lover/husband (depending on how far I'd read), Byron was being suitably Byronic with his sister, and Lady Caroline Lamb had seemingly gone completely mad and was being very tedious about it.

Time for break. Or as the Monty Python boys would have it - now for something completely different! Bemoaning the lack of anything completely different, my mother handed me 'Two Lipsticks and a Lover' by Helena Frith Powell. Pushing aside my turned up nose, she assured me it was a very good read, and so I sat down and immersed myself in all the various attitudes the French have to clothes, appearance, love, sex (quite different to Love, and more destructive) and education.

It's memoir, rather than chick lit, which is perhaps why I like it so much. And I found myself suddenly immersed and absolutely adamant that I had to have matching underwear all the time, different cleansers depending on whether I was wearing make up or not, and on no account was I to wear trainers or flat when I could wear heels.

Of course, not much of this has stuck, but I remain impressed by the light hearted but interesting look at another culture. I can't say I'm surprised that Helena Frith Powell found herself changing into a French woman.

It was a good book to break the passions of the romantics with, and pushed me into a reading frenzy. More books to come, I'm back on a roll people!

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Mourning the lack of time

Summertime is upon up (or past us, depending on your view of the significance of the summer solstice) and I find that the time I have come to know as my massive book reading period has disappeared in a puff of smoke!

I have surprised myself by taking three weeks to read a book that in earlier years would've taken me a week to read. I've even had to take a break and read something infinitely lighter! This (I think) is what's known as 'life'. I don't like it, and it's definitely getting in the way of my reading.

I have decided to take a stand. I will be firmer with my reading habits, and my blogging habits too (for when my reading slows my blogging disappears all together, no matter how many ideas float around my mind).

Fear not, I am still here - surfing the waves and turning pages at an ever increasing speed - and I'll bring you more tales of my reading life as quickly as I can. Life wont beat me. Books are too important!

Monday, 1 June 2009

Poem of the Week

A summer Day - Lucy Maud Montgomery


The dawn laughs out on orient hills
And dances with the diamond rills;
The ambrosial wind but faintly stirs
The silken, beaded gossamers;
In the wide valleys, lone and fair,
Lyrics are piped from limpid air,
And, far above, the pine trees free
Voice ancient lore of sky and sea.
Come, let us fill our hearts straightway
With hope and courage of the day.


Noon, hiving sweets of sun and flower,
Has fallen on dreams in wayside bower,
Where bees hold honeyed fellowship
With the ripe blossom of her lip;
All silent are her poppied vales
And all her long Arcadian dales,
Where idleness is gathered up
A magic draught in summer's cup.
Come, let us give ourselves to dreams
By lisping margins of her streams.


Adown the golden sunset way
The evening comes in wimple gray;
By burnished shore and silver lake
Cool winds of ministration wake;
O'er occidental meadows far
There shines the light of moon and star,
And sweet, low-tinkling music rings
About the lips of haunted springs.
In quietude of earth and air
'Tis meet we yield our souls to prayer.

Hope everyone is enjoying the weather, and not getting too burned (my back is bright pink, oh dear!)

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Lost in Romance

Isn't the weather lovely? Oxford is crammed with people eating ice cream and enjoying the way the college stone looks in the sunshine. The river is teaming with punts, and no one seems to be falling in. Bank holiday weather of the most sublime sort - and I don't even care that I'm actually working tomorrow. With weather like this, and the promise of more to come for summer, I could work every day as long as I got a Pimms at the end of it!

I spent much of the day in the Botanic Gardens, marvelling at the riot of colour, and reading about a different sort of colour in Jude Morgan's brilliant 'Passion'. Dovegreyreader was talking recently about Jude's latest book, which reminded me I had yet to read the above mentioned, and it seemed fitting after 'The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth', which mum has just picked up, and which seems to hardly be suited to such a day. It needs to be read during a storm. 'Passion' on the other hand, is ideal for the heat and brightness of today, for what other words could be used to describe the four women that are shown in the novel. Mary Shelley and Fanny Brawne have yet to burn as brightly as Caroline Lamb or Augusta Leigh, but it seems to be only a matter of time, before they too fall into the embrace of Byron, Shelley or Keats.
How different from Wordsworth, who has only an obsessed sister to cast a shadow over poetic respectability.

I am barely halfway through, but I am being whirled along, as if I too were engaged in a waltz with a dissolute rake. Jude' style is mesmerising and mercurial; hardly the same from one page to the next. Sometimes taking the voice of one woman, speaking directly to the audience, and at other times allowing the reader to be less involved. On the periphery, untouched by scandal, but seeing it just the same.

I must go tend to my pink arms, and see if I can make my shoulders the same colour. I was too involved in reading to notice the tan lines ....

Monday, 18 May 2009

Retail Therapy

I needed to cheer myself up after work, and thanks to a friend who, forgetting she'd already given me a birthday present, refused to take her second cheque back, I popped into Blackwells on my way home and indulged myself.

Firstly I bought A.S. Byatt's 'The Children's Book'. I've been a bit wary of her work, as although I think 'Possession' is amazing, I've never been able to get through the diary section, and have given up twice in the same spot. However, it has been recommended fervently by Dovegreyreader, so I shall give it a chance, even if A.S. Byatt is a literary snob about Harry Potter ('
Ms Rowling's magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip') Humph.

Secondly I bought Mark Bostridge's new biography of Florence Nightingale. I heard him speak about this at the Oxford Literary Festival, but didn't buy it, as it was only out in hardback at the time, and I had to choose between it and Penelope Fitzgerald's letters.

So, I feel a bit better now, and am taking myself to bed to delve into a book - not sure which one yet though!

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Doomed Love

I don't know what's got into me this past week, but suddenly I am devouring books quicker than normal, and I've been totally immersed in the lives of women on the periphery. If it's not Dorothy Wordsworth, then it's Nelly Ternan. Does it say something for my subconscious that I seem to be reading about woman who were repressed (deliberately or otherwise) by the men that loved them? I do hope not.

It's hard to write a biography when there is not much evidence of the person being scrutinised. Ellen (Nelly) Ternan was a young woman brought up in an acting family with what looked like a decent, if not completely promising, acting career in front of her, until one day Charles Dickens decided to take his amateur acting up a level and hired her, and the rest of her family, to take the roles that his family had previously played. From that day in 1857, Nelly was inextricably bound up with Dickens and as a result slipped almost completely from the pages of history.

Certainly as the Victorian era's best model for family values (even if he did abandon his wife and was unduly critical of his children) Dickens could afford no scandal to touch his name, and he therefore endeavoured to keep Nelly as cloistered as possible, but the subterfuge went so far that even after his death, Nelly remained silent on the subject of her famous patron.

Claire Tomalin's portrait is an interesting one to read, because even with the scant information there is to enable us to form a clear picture, there is still enough snippets for us to gain an understanding of where she came from and where she went after a thirteen year vanishing act. The fact that Dickens had a mistress doesn't particularly shock modern sensibilities, but when the news was breaking just after the First World War people were outraged. The person it appears to have hurt the most, however, was Nelly's son from her marriage after her time with Dickens. Geoffrey had been brought up believing his Mother was young and truthful, wholly in love with his father, and never anything more remarkable than the wife of a schoolmaster. To discover she had once been an actress, was a decade older than she pretended to be, had possibly deceived his father for the whole of their marriage, and might have never truly loved him, was too much. Geoffrey refused to talk about the potential truth for the rest of his life, and is believed to have destroyed much vital evidence that would have helped us put a character to the many images we have of Nelly. Interestingly, the reverse is true of Dorothy Wordsworth - we have many words, and only two images, one a silhouette.

I wonder sometimes if there are any other invisible women to be discovered. Half the Victorian world seems to have lived double or triple lives; who else split their lives into public and private and managed to get away with it - up to a point? One can only wonder at the scandalous stories that are still to be revealed to the world.

Not today, I've got a headache

Halfway through my MA in Life Writing, I was instructed to read Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere journals. The event was not a happy one, and I don't think I ever made it through more than a third. This was a woman who, it seemed to me, had a headache every other entry and was totally preoccupied with getting letters from her brother, William. 'He's only been gone two days!', my mind screamed as she moaned, 'pull yourself together!'

Unsurprisingly I completely missed the point, preferring only to see the words and not what their underlying impetus told me about the relationship between the two.

I have just swallowed Frances Wilson's 'The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth' whole, which I wrote about when I went to Dartington last year. It's an intriguing book, for Frances Wilson takes the bare words of the journal, complete with running commentary on health, and seeks to find the thinking, feeling, person beneath and between the lines.
Dorothy, she states, is rarely seem in the journal, all we get is a mass of finely jangled nerves, observations of nature and details of her brothers' activities. She is less visible in his presence because of the space he takes up - although
as Frances Wilson herself says 'Without William, Dorothy has no substance: even in her journal she is hardest to see when she is most alone.' When we see her most clearly, it is almost always when she is reporting on the lives of those closest to her.

I have never really 'got on' with Wordsworth, having always seen him as something of a failure. Now, before you all respond with a cry of 'heathen!', let me make clear that I don't mean him to be a failure as a poet, rather it is as a Romantic that he fails. The German poet Friedrich Schlegel said Romanticism was an art that is eternally in the 'process of becoming' and 'can never be completed' (quoted in Frances Wilson's book p 29) and if we consider the most famous romantic poets, then we see that Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron and Clare all died at fairly young ages, with their poetic dream incomplete. Wordsworth on the other hand, transcended the romantic ideal and became in the end a much feted Victorian Gentleman. Can you imagine any of the other Romantics becoming Poet Laureate?

To return to Dorothy, however, I feel somehow that Frances Wilson has changed my opinion of her. True enough, the headaches are in as much abundance as they ever were, but I can now put them into context. Dorothy was a remarkably emotive woman. She never seemed to have felt anything by halves, even though she uses the word often enough in her journals and letters (she is half full, half afraid, half overcome) and the love she was deprived of when her father cast her out of the family at the age of seven when her mother died, seems to have crashed forth like a waterfall when she turned her back on polite society and went to ramble with William all over the countryside. This was not the usual practise for young woman and at one point during the period she and William lived near Coleridge in Somerset, the group was described as 'a mischievous gang of disaffected Englishmen', which seems a perfect way to sum up the early Romantic era.

Who was Dorothy? Why was she so devoted to her brother? Did they, in fact, have a more intimate relationship than their friends ever guessed? Was she completely senile by the time she died? The answer to all these questions, even after reading Frances Wilson's book seem to be 'I'm not quite sure.' No evidence other than readings of journal entries have been found to prove an incestuous relationship; the woman seen in the journal is quite different from the one presented in her letters or her friends recollections. She is an unsolvable riddle, but one that biographers will continue to puzzle over. I'm off to hunt out my copy of her journals, for I see now they have more to say than I previously supposed.

Friday, 15 May 2009

What a difference a year makes

It seems that I have been blogging about my literary passions for a whole year now, so I thought I'd celebrate in the form of a post about the book that caused me to change my whole outlook and made me really love reading.

So, why don't you grab a chair (that bean bag in the corner is comfy), help yourself to tea and cake (there's some white chocolate brownies circulating) and I'll tell you all about it.

The book is 'Legacy' by Susan Kay, and I highly doubt if most of you have heard of it. As historical fiction goes it's not all that different from the Jean Plaidy, Philippa Gregory or Norah Loffts that so dominate our shelves now, but what makes it special for me is that it was the first book that completely captured my attention, and at one point, I got so drawn in to the story that I lost all sense of time for about half an hour. I missed Neighbours and Home and Away (which when you're ten is a big deal)!

The novel is basically the story of Elizabeth I's love affair with Robert Dudley - a tale that has been told many time over the years. I'll always remember the start, because it focuses on Anne Boleyn, and the short time she had with her daughter in a beautiful way. Elizabeth is left pulling the head off her favourite doll after overhearing servants gossip - a haunting image.
It's been years since I read it, but it's essence has stayed with me ever since I first read it. Up until then I had think I'd been ambivalent about reading, but this book showed me a world I didn't know and I wanted to find others that would do the same. A bookworm was born!

Is there a particular book that opened everything out for you, or made you take your reading more seriously? I'm sure there's at least one for everyone!

Saturday, 2 May 2009

His Dark Materials

There are some books that you would love to see realised on stage or film, but you can't quite visualise how it would work, and dread anyone trying.

This is how I feel about the 'His Dark Materials' trilogy. I've always loved the books because of the depth in both the plot and characters; the fact it's partly set in Oxford makes it all the more magical to me. The film of the first book doesn't do any justice, and it's always struck me as odd that it should have been made when there was never any intention of completing the trilogy.

When the National Theatre staged a two part adaptation of the books, I desperately wanted to see it, but I never got the chance. Today, my dream finally came true, as I spent six hours in the Oxford Playhouse watching the most wonderful performances.

It's a notoriously difficult plot to stage, not least because of the daemons the population of one world are supposed to have. And how do you create armoured polar bears? The answer, it turns out, is puppetry. Beautiful puppetry, that makes use of the puppeteer, so that even if you are slightly distracted by a snow leopard being manipulated by a human, it doesn't matter, because the human is the voice, and therefore part of the enchantment.

If you happen to be in Bromley, Northampton, Edinburgh or West Yorkshire over the next couple of months, I urge you to go and see it. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that you should make a trip specially to see it. I can't possibly talk about all the aspects of what makes it so wonderful, or how they manage to cram so much into six hours, but if anyone has questions, then do write in the comments.

I doubt anyone from the National is reading this, but I really wish and hope that someone films the stage version, it's truly remarkable!